Arts

Photographers look for 'the poetry of death and dying in America'

Social gathering and sharing a meal during Russian Easter honoring the dead, Spring Valley, New Jersey, 1997

Social gathering and sharing a meal during Russian Easter honoring the dead, Spring Valley, New Jersey, 1997

Credit:

Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

Between 1996 and 1998, Bastienne Schmidt and her husband, Philippe Cheng, traveled throughout the United States photographing the services and ceremonies Americans use for the dead, hoping to “show some of the poetry of death and dying in America.”

Their images span from Las Vegas to Vicksburg, Mississippi, from New Orleans to New Jersey, and places in between. The images often capture a deep sense of place — a reminder that mourning and memory are not just in the mind, but rooted in communities and geographic space.

"We live in this time where we’re missing a sense of place," they say. "We’re feeling displaced, and that’s true for the physical place but also in a spiritual sense. As religion is not so important anymore in our lives, we have to reinvent our own way of mourning and grieving, our own rituals. And rituals are very important in this process of grieving."

Even though they often knew no one at these events, the two were able to establish trust through their approach. They chose not to shoot wide-angle from far away, but to get in close and engage with the people themselves. According to Schmidt, “Photography is also a tool to bear witness,” and in their travels they found themselves able to tell stories and share images of people that might have otherwise gone unseen.

These photos, originally published by PRI's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, are a collaboration with FlakPhoto, an independent photo/arts collaborative that promotes the discovery of photographic image-makers from around the world.

  • Woman shielding her face in a cemetery in St. Martinsville, Louisiana, 1998

    Credit:

    Bastinenne Schmidt and Philippe Chenge/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Honoring the memory of a slain police officer, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1998

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Funeral for a policeman who was shot on the line of duty, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1998

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • A woman visits the cemetery of St. Martinsville during All Saints Day, Louisiana, 1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Altar boys carrying a crucifix in a funeral procession,Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1998

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Advertising for a flower shop catering to weddings and funerals, Houston, Texas

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Monument of praying hands in a cemetery in Corpus Christi, Texas, 1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Grave stones being uprooted in a cemetery in Tucson, supposedly because cemetery fees had not been paid. Families arrived very upset, having not been told that the graves of their relatives had been uprooted, Tucson, Arizona, 1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • A fenced in gravesite in the open landscape of South Dakota, 1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesty of FlakPhoto

  • Sunday cemetery visit in San Bernadino Valley, San Francisco, 1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • A client of Miriam's house, a residential home for women with AIDS, showing a picture of Christ as a sign what is keeping her strong, Washington, D.C.,1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Voodoo ritual with cigars and chalk drawing of a casket in a cemetery in New Orleans, Louisiana, 1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, 1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Abandoned cemetery, Louisiana, 1997

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Children's toys left in part of a cemetery that is reserved for children, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1996

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philippe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

  • Preparation for a funeral, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1996

    Credit:

    Bastienne Schmidt and Philppe Cheng/Courtesy of FlakPhoto

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